By Germain Mucyo 

In anticipation of the 30th commemoration of the beginning of one of the darkest chapters in human history–the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda–the Bates College French and Francophone Studies Department presented a transformative conference in Lewiston in March titled “Rwanda 30 Years After: Trauma Healing of Genocide Survivors & Intergenerational Trauma. The conference brought together survivors, scholars, and activists, and featured distinguished speakers Esther Mujawayo, Jean Bosco Rutagengwa, and Chantal Kayitesi, who shared their own harrowing experiences and insights as survivors of the genocide, shedding light on its enduring impact. 

In the 30 years since the genocide ended, survivors have grappled with profound physical and mental challenges, with psychological trauma emerging as a prominent concern. Professor Alexandre Dauge-Roth, Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Bates, whose scholarship includes investigations of collective trauma, emphasized the intergenerational impact of trauma. He underscored the importance of providing survivors and communities with the space and support to navigate their traumatic experiences and convey their stories to future generations. 

“Every family, every survivor or community,” said Dauge-Roth, “should establish their own way, decide what to say and what not to say, in terms of what they have experienced.” 

Mujawayo, Rutagengwa, and Kayitesi spoke of their own personal recovery journeys, which included taking action to help others. “I was a therapist, but there was only one psychiatric hospital, and I had never heard of a therapist specializing in trauma recovery in Rwanda. At first we didn’t know how to organize ourselves, but by learning and listening to other people, that’s how we started the Association of Genocide Widows, ‘AVEGA-Agahozo,’ immediately after the Genocide,” Mujawayo said. 

“Agahozo” is a Kinyarwanda word meaning “to dry your tears.” AVEGA-Agahozo was started by a group of fifty women who met in Kigali in 1995. The women had all been widowed during the violence, and their aim was to provide care, support, and comfort to one another. Today, the group’s members include more than 19,000 widows and over 71,000 dependents and genocide orphans. The organization is supported by the Government of Rwanda and by organizations and individual donors across the world. 

In addition to her work with AVEGA, Mujawayo is the author of two of the major testimonies published to date, SurVivantes (2004/2011) and La Fleur de Stéphanie (2006). Mujawayo has received many awards, including the 2008 Bundesverdienstkreuz (Distinguished Service Cross) from the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, where she currently lives. 

Like Mujawayo, Rutagengwa was instrumental in founding an organization, IBUKA, which has branches around the world, including IBUKA-USA. “Ibuka” means “remember” in Kinyarwanda.  According to the organization’s website, it strives to  “work tirelessly to fight against the legacy of the genocide and its effects on survivors” and to be a “national and international reference in issues of genocide prevention, preservation of genocide memory, and fight against any kind of genocide ideology.” 

As the first president of IBUKA, Rutagengwa said, “We needed to help survivors rebuild their lives in different aspects. They had lost everything. They (essentially) lost their lives: physically, emotionally, economically, but also the lack of justice.” Rutangengwa is also the author of Love Prevails: One Couple’s Story of Faith and Survival in the Rwandan Genocide (2019) 

Rutagengwa and Kayitesi are siblings, born in southern Rwanda, in a small town called Nyanza, formerly the capital of the Kingdom of Rwanda. They lost their parents and two of their siblings in the Genocide. Kayitesi is a clinical research nurse and a public health professional at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston as well as the co-author of Entendez-Nous! (Hear Us!), a new book written by women who survived the genocide. 

During the conference, the three featured speakers engaged in dialogue with Bates College students. Enath Muhawenimana, a student at Bates, highlighted the need to raise awareness of the effects of post-genocide trauma. “We want to diminish intergenerational trauma by being the voice of survivors,” Muhawenimana said. “We need regular visits with survivors, acts of kindness, and people taking the initiative to talk to them about how to treat their kids in order to diminish that trauma.” 

Three survivors share their stories

Esther Mujawayo 

Portrait by Ali Priganc, Bates student 

Esther Mujawayo is a Rwandan human rights activist, author, psychotherapist, and co-founder of AVEGA (Association of Widows of April’s Genocide). She is also a survivor of the Genocide against the Tutsti in Rwanda. Her three children also survived the genocide, but the rest of her immediate family perished. 

Now residing in Germany, Esther counsels survivors of the genocide and works with asylum seekers who have experienced traumatic forms of violence. She is the author of two books, SurVivantes (2004) and La Fleur de Stefanie (2006),which offer profound insight into the power of testimony and human resilience SurVivantes bears witness to Mujawayo’s personal journey through genocide and survival as well as the the experiences of others – all while recounting and exploring the persisting psychological effects of the genocide. The capital “V” in SurVivantes is intentional. In the French, “survivantes” translates to “survivor,” while “vivantes” translates to “alive.” The capital letter “V” is symbolic of the decision a survivor must make to continue to live, continue to develop a life, and not be consumed by the traumatic legacy they carry within themselves. 

La Fleur de Stéphanie recounts Mujawayos efforts to find the bodies of her late family members to give them a final resting place. Her book tells of her journey seeking justice and dignity for her sister, Stephanie, in the Gacaca courts, with only a flower “une fleur” planted by her in childhood remaining amidst the ruins of their family’s home. The book is about hope, courage, and the role of women survivors within the process of reconciliation in Rwanda. 

In recognition of her work, Mujawayo was awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz (Distinguished Service Cross) in 2008, and The Women Social Award, also in 2008. She also received the UN Watch Award for her activism work. Between her advocacy work for survivors, her role in AVEGA, and her multiple writings, Mujawayo has played an important role in healing the psychological wounds the genocide left behind. 

Speaking of the lasting communities of women and survivors Mujawayo has created who continue to support and heal each other she said, “From the worst experience, we managed to make something beautiful.” 

Jean Bosco Rutagengwa 

Portrait by Charles Renvyle, Bates student 

Jean Bosco Rutagengwa is a survivor of the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda and also author of Love Prevails: One couple’s story of faith and survival in the Rwandan Genocide (2019), a memoir. After the genocide, Jean Bosco worked with the Rwandan government in commerce and industry, and in the private sector as a businessman. He and his sister, Chantal Kayitesi, who also survived the genocide, have been active in reconstruction efforts in Rwanda.  

Rutagengwa has long been one of the leaders of Kanyarwanda, a nonprofit human rights organization founded in 1991 to promote and defend human rights and equality, and fight injustice. After 1994, Kanyarwanda has focused on assisting survivors and promoting social justice in Rwanda.  

Rutagengwa also co-founded IBUKA in 1994, an organization which has worked on the digitization and preservation of survivors’ testimonies of the genocide, the combatting of genocide denial, and advocacy for survivors’ needs and calls for justice. IBUKA has played a large role in the rehabilitation of Rwandan society and helped many survivors rebuild their lives. IBUKA has also participated in post-genocide legal proceedings by supporting the physical and mental well-being of survivors and helping them provide testimony.  

Rutagengwa immigrated to America with his wife and children in 2000, and continues to be active in IBUKA-USA to this day. Love Prevails: One couple’s story of faith and survival in the Rwandan Genocide (2019) tells the story of loved ones he lost during the genocide. “I wanted to let people know who these people were. My parents, siblings, extended family members, friends. They were noble people, dignified people, loving people. I wanted to have a place, like a sanctuary, where I could go to read their stories again.” The book is a testament to his belief that love triumphs over evil. 

        Today, Rutagengwa speaks to other survivors, telling them, “We lived a difficult history. Something terrible happened to us, but we need to be strong. We need to be loving people, we need to be peaceful people. It’s a message of love, because what happened to us was terrible, and we should not do the same. We know our message should be a message of hope for humanity. When you survive a tragedy, you don’t want anyone else to go through it”. He also speaks to leaders, citing a failure of leadership before the genocide as one of its causes. He aims to hold leaders accountable, and make sure their actions promote unity and peace. 

Chantal Kayitesi 

Portrait by Thomas Graham, Bates student 

Chantal Kayitesi is a survivor of the Genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda who realized in the wake of the genocide  that widows and orphaned children were in dire need of assistance, and decided to do something about it by working on uniting a group of women for mutual support. That group was the genesis of the Association of Widows and Children of the Genocide Agahozo (AVEGA), officially established in October 1995.  

AVEGA swiftly became a crucial resource for those navigating the challenges of rebuilding their lives after profound loss. Under her guidance, AVEGA continues to provide support, advocacy, and empowerment to genocide survivors, embodying the tenacity and fortitude of the human spirit. For the 30th commemoration of the Genocide, the founders of AVAGA published a collective testimony entitled Entendez-nous! which translates as listen to us! 

Kayitesi  was born in Rwanda, but spent some of her time growing up in Burundi, where much of her mother’s extended family lived. She had six sisters, and speaks of her family as “a dream family.” Her parents both worked in public health and the family was middle class. 

Kayitesi’s parents did the best they could to shield their children from the social and ethnic divisions that politicians were using to promote hate and discrimination. However, the conflict touched her family well before the massacres of 1994. In 1963, her father was arrested by the Rwandan government who accused him of being a Tutsi spy, though he was later released. And at the beginning of the Rwandan civil war in 1990, many of her cousins and uncles enlisted into the Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR) to fight against the Hutu extremist government. 

On the first day of the genocide, Kayitesi took refuge in the school in Kigali where her husband Joseph worked as a professor. In exchange for a bribe, she and her husband escaped, however the rest of the many Tutsis seeking refuge in the school including her little sister and brother, were murdered. The couple fled Kigali, constantly on the move to try and evade danger. At one point, in an attempt to secure safety for his family, Joseph left them to try and obtain Hutu identity cards from an old friend who had become the mayor of a smaller town. Left to fend for herself with her newborn child, Kayitesi persevered through the horrors of the genocide, and eventually made it to the liberated region of Rwanda controlled by the Rwandan Patriotic Front. It was then that she learned her husband had been betrayed and killed by his childhood friend, and that only two members of her family had survived, her brother, Jean Bosco, and sister Julienne.  

In the wake of the Rwandan genocide, Chantal Kayitesi emerged as a symbol of resilience and support for fellow survivors.